LIMA — At the peak of the overdose epidemic, when synthetic opiates like fentanyl led to a record 39 accidental overdose deaths in Allen County in 2017, the Allen County Prosecutor’s office adopted a new strategy: treat the deaths as homicide.
Soon, prosecutors were bringing charges of involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide against those who provided drugs that resulted in a person’s death.
To Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick, the cases are akin to liability claims against faulty manufacturers: “If somebody makes a baby bed that a baby gets hurt in, they’re liable,” Waldick said. “Maybe not criminally but civilly liable. So why shouldn’t people be responsible if they sell other people drugs, and they die?”
But the quest to prosecute dealers for their role in an increasingly deadly epidemic—a nationwide trend that has been practiced in Ohio for years—has also ensnared drug users, who risk being criminally charged for sharing drugs that resulted in a friend’s death.
‘Devastating. That’s the only word for it’
A 20-year-old Wapakoneta woman, Mariah Miller, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for involuntary manslaughter for injecting her boyfriend with fentanyl and methamphetamine, the latter presumably in a failed attempt to counteract the overdose.
Miller had a history of drug use that shaped her relationship with Nathan Ellis, who died in Feb. 2021, her attorney said during a sentencing hearing in April.
There’s the husband and brother who years earlier pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and felony drug possession after the death of Cynthia Lewis, one of the first drug-induced homicide cases in Allen County.
The drugs were so potent that Lewis’s husband, David Lewis, said in a 2017 court hearing that he needed naloxone after passing out.
“That was devastating to everybody,” said William Kluge, a defense attorney who has represented clients accused of drug-induced homicide. “Devastating. That’s the only word for it.”
Who’s being charged?
There is no comprehensive data showing who is being charged and convicted for drug-induced homicide in Ohio, in part because prosecutors rely on a variety of charges like involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide or corrupting another with drugs, which makes it difficult for legal scholars to assess whether charges are being applied fairly.
Instead, scholars like Douglas Berman have had to rely on media accounts, which may understate cases brought in rural counties.
“You often hear from prosecutors: we use this tool when we have this major kingpin dealer who’s dealing the most dangerous drugs and lots of people are dying; that’s the only time we kick this in,” said Douglas Berman, a professor and director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
“But the data they’ve collected suggests it’s not infrequently the boyfriend or girlfriend who’s there co-using the drug and failed to call 911 or otherwise; what makes them culpable is not that they’re this big-time dealer but just that they were using together under circumstances that led to the death.”
Critics of drug-induced homicide convictions argue the practice undermines Good Samaritan laws, or immunity protections offered to bystanders who call 911 in an overdose.
Ohio’s Good Samaritan protections already exclude people on parole or probation, and immunity is only available twice for minor possession charges. Involuntary manslaughter, a felony, is not included.
While Berman himself is reluctant to criticize prosecutors for bringing drug-induced homicide cases due to the lack of data, he said it does risk sending the message that bystanders should protect themselves rather than call authorities.
“The refrain is we should be embracing Good Samaritan laws that actually protect people in these situations to be able to get help and not fear criminal prosecution, rather than be ratcheting up the stakes of what prosecution might involve if things go terribly wrong.”
‘How can that be counterproductive?’
Generally, Waldick said, his office focuses on drug suppliers and not those who call 911.
There was DeJuan Lucas, convicted last October on a dozen felony charges including involuntary manslaughter for the death of Dino Gerdeman. Lucas, who was also convicted for possession of large amounts of heroin and fentanyl, reportedly sold the drugs to a young Lima woman who cooperated with prosecutors after she was charged with Gerdeman’s death.
“If you’re selling stuff or providing this to people and they’re dying, how can that be counterproductive?” Waldick asked. “I don’t see the logic in saying that’s not good policy.”
But to defense attorneys, the question of culpability remains: If a person voluntarily uses drugs, is it fair to charge the person who supplied them? “That’s always the big moral issue right there,” Kluge said.